Victor Salvi, a scion of an Italian musical dynasty who became one of the world’s preeminent manufacturer of harps – a musician, artisan and businessman dubbed the “lord of the strings” – died May 10 at a hospital in Milan. He was 95.

The cause was complications from pacemaker surgery, said his daughter Nicoletta Salvi.

With a sound fit for the firmament and beauty that belies it girth, the harp has graced the musical universe since antiquity. Historical figures imagined and real, from Orpheus to Marie Antoinette, favored it above other instruments. Harpo Marx used it onscreen to comic and ethereal effect.

But by the mid-1900s, after centuries of privileged status, the instrument seemed in danger of fading into irrelevance as a wallflower of the orchestra pit and the gilded prop of angels and nuptials. To the rescue came Salvi, The New York Times reported in 1957, with a plan to prevent the instrument from becoming a “musical dodo.”

In New York and later in Italy, he began repairing and then making harps, eventually establishing an empire in Piasco, a village near Turin where spruce trees, used to build soundboards, grew in abundance.

Today, the company, Salvi Harps, is regarded as one of the finest manufacturers of its kind. Besides collectors, professional musicians and amateur players, its patrons have included Prince Charles, who accepted a Salvi product in 2006 in recognition of the harp’s history as the Welsh national instrument.

Most harps on concert stages, the Times reported in 2005, were made by Salvi’s factory in Piasco or at the Chicago firm of Lyon & Healy, an erstwhile competitor that he purchased in the 1980s. He was, the Economist magazine once declared, “the world’s great impresario of the harp.”

His father, Rodolfo Salvi, had preceded him in the art of manufacturing instruments. A Venetian-born luthier, the elder Salvi had known 19th-century composers including Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner before moving to the southern Italian village of Viggiano, where his wife had sought a climate that might alleviate her tuberculosis.

There, Rodolfo began made string instruments before moving his family to the United States to support the musical career of his son Alberto, a harp virtuoso. Victor Salvi, called Vittorio by his parents, was born March 4, 1920, in Chicago.

“The kid was a genius,” Salvi told the Economist, describing Alberto. “He was making $1,000 a night until the Depression.”

Victor, too, studied music. Under the instruction of his sister Aida, he began learning to play the harp.

After serving in Navy bands during World War II, Salvi moved to New York, where he played in productions including Gian Carlo Menotti’s opera “The Consul.” He also performed with the New York Philharmonic under Dimitri Mitropoulos and the NBC Symphony Orchestra under Arturo Toscanini.

In the meantime, he nurtured an interest in the mechanics of his instrument. “Playing the harp in orchestras, you get a lot of measures of rest,” he told the Times in 2005, “time to think about how the instrument is constructed and how it could be improved.”

He founded Salvi Harps in 1956. The business was first located in Genoa, where he rented a 15th-century villa from nuns, running his workshop upstairs and raising a family downstairs, his daughter said.

In the 1970s the operation moved to Piasco, where Salvi hired cabinetmakers and taught them to build harps. The Economist reported that he purchased a British producer of cow gut to guarantee sufficient quantity of the materials used for strings. More than two cows, the magazine reported, may be required to make a harp.

Salvi was credited with changing the pedals and other elements of the harp to make its sound more forceful. With gilded models named Apollonia and Minerva and an inlaid one called Arianna, his productions retained the instrument’s ancient delicacy and fetched tens of thousands of dollars.

He established the Victor Salvi Foundation to promote the instrument around the world and to dispel notions of harps as attractive pieces of furniture or toys for the well-heeled. “Anyone can sit down to the harp and make sounds so that people don’t want to jump out of the window,” he told the Times.

As for the instrument’s apparently prohibitive size, he told the Daily Telegraph that he knew “elderly ladies who are not very big, but move their harps around like a professional trucker.”

Salvi’s marriage to Martha Perazzo ended in divorce. His second wife was Julia Torres, who resides in London, Piasco and Bogotá, Colombia. Other survivors include two children from his first marriage, Marco Salvi of Milan and Nicoletta Salvi of Katonah, New York; two children from his second marriage, Victor Salvi Jr. of Bogotá and Ana Salvi of London; and five grandchildren.


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